Boy, that was rough.
Old Glory has started their first season of professional rugby like a kid who’s late for the school bus. Rushing to get ready, scarfing down some breakfast, then making a mad dash for the bus stop before realizing that they left their homework on the kitchen table. It’s not the start to the day you want to see, but it’s also only the start of the day.
No one who watched the game needs convincing that there was quite a bit to criticize in OGDC’s first MLR game, but there is also a lot that points to a brighter future for the team. Here are some takeaways from the match.
1. The scrum is a big, big problem
This wasn’t unexpected; we’ve known that the scrum would be a struggle since the preseason match against Atlanta. However, we’ve now learned just how much that can be exploited by a good team like the NOLA Gold. By controlling the set piece, NOLA could afford to play loose and free, allowing them to rack up the tries and not worry about mistakes.
It’s difficult to overstate the effect this had on the team. Without a stable attacking platform, getting any offensive rhythm was basically impossible for Old Glory. It was also clearly demoralizing, as even a good defensive play that lead to an OGDC scrum would likely just lead to a NOLA penalty. The team had some stretches during which they just looked defeated.
The mitigating factor in all of this doom and gloom is that the scrum is lacking some key players still, as addressed in the next section. But it’s still concerning, because it points to a dangerous lack of depth in the scrum if this is the sort of situation that a few starters being out creates.
2. OGDC needs its starters
There are, however, two good reasons not to be unduly concerned by the previous point. First, the scrum did improve a bit towards the end of the game, in some part due to the rookie tighthead Will Vakalahi coming off the bench. Second, the scrum would likely be a lot better if DC weren’t down two of their presumptive starters in hooker Mikey Sosene-Feagai and loosehead prop Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira (the Beast is being held up by visa problems, along with many other international signings in the league).
The problem for the forwards in the scrum isn’t weight, nor is it physicality – if it were, we would see evidence of it in the other parts of the game like crashes and rucks, which we don’t. The issue is primarily one of technique, especially on the front row, which is something where the high-level experience of Mtawarira and Sosene-Feagai could play a huge part. It it by no means a guarantee that those two being in would solve everything, but one has to expect that we wouldn’t have seen anything like what we saw with those two in.
3. The defense looks decent… most of the time
Though you wouldn’t guess it from the the seven tries conceded, OGDC actually played a fairly stout defensive game. Not perfect, definitely, but when you consider the time of possession, the struggles of the scrum, and the amount of time they spent in their own half, they could have done a lot worse. They showed resolve on the goal line, held NOLA in check, and didn’t give a lot of ground on crashes and at breakdowns.
That said, there were notable moments when team let NOLA walk right through them. In particular, the score just after the start of the second half had the feel of team that was no longer really trying. They seemed, understandably, demoralized after taking a beating in the first half, and it wasn’t until some ten minutes later that they refocused and buckled down. It was pretty simple, really: when the team was focused, they were good; when they weren’t, they weren’t.
4. NOLA is good – very good
The end of last season was something of a disappointment for the NOLA Gold, with injuries hampering what was otherwise a top level team. Before their nose dive, they had an average points difference of 7.3 points per game, which would have put them second in the league after San Diego by that metric. Offensively, they were scoring an average of 32.6 points per game, the best in the league by a point and a half over Seattle. Needless to say, it looks like that team is back with a vengeance this year. They should be a favorite to make the playoffs this season, at least.
Overall, it was not the best MLR debut that one could imagine, but there’s also no shame in losing a game as a brand new team to a quality opponent. Things don’t look like they’ll be any easier next weekend, but I for one am just glad to be watching local professional rugby.